Monday, March 28, 2011

Adventures in Modern Art

People generally like art, if their consumption of aesthetic objects is any indication.  Artists of many traditions from all over the world have spent many centuries crafting images depicting the beauty of nature and the human form, and classical masterpieces remain the gold standard of virtuosity.  But for many, the landscape of modern art is often a strange and confusing place, populated by statues that look like melting rock formations and portraits that look like paint shop accidents.  To some people, it's art with an asterisk, requiring footnotes to be fully understood and appreciated.  And who's got time to do the research necessary to fully appreciate the nuances and complexities of a woman with eyes on the same side of her face?

Well, I don't know about you, but I love asterisks*.  And though the extent of my knowledge is not exactly omniscient, I have a deep intellectual affection for the goals, methods, and theories of modern art.  Modern art, by the way, is not merely a synonym for contemporary of 20th century art; it's a distinct mode of creativity that emphasizes experimentation and a search for new symbolic languages.  It's not the only way of doing art in the modern era, and it exists alongside both traditional methods and postmodern art (more on that later), but it is for my money the most interesting and fun to experience and enjoy. 

*Love 'em!

So, with a recent visit to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, I decided to share my love of modern art with you (whoever you are).  Here is an abbreviated guided tour of some of my favorite pieces within the walls of MOMA, with commentary and fuzzy reproductions from my horrible, horrible camera.  Do not be afraid of the weirdness.

The work of Henri Matisse demonstrates that modern art, as a whole, is not necessarily beyond comprehension: although it uses some experimental techniques with color to create a more engaging image, this really is nothing more than a still life of flowers.  I think.  I may be missing something (it happens a lot with this sort of art). 

Georges Braque was a cubist painter, and nobody knows it, because the word "cubism" is linked to Pablo Picasso in the public mind by some sort of insidious Pavlovian mechanism, even though Braque had as much to do with developing the style as Picasso did.  This painting is also essentially a still life, this time of a violin: the only difference is that, through the magic of cubism, we can see all sides of the violin at once.  Maybe you never wanted to see all sides of a violin at once, but now you have, and you have to admit it's kind of cool.

Speaking of Picasso, I have no idea what's going on in this picture, apart from an apparently deliberate attempt to drive the viewer insane with its impossible angles and that large lobe-thing coming from the blue woman's pelvis.  Kudos to anyone who can tell me what the hell that thing is, because it's creeping me out.

This is a painting by Diego Rivera, husband of Frida Kahlo and portrayer of Latin American working people, as rendered in broad colors and prominent geometric shapes.  That basket looks incredibly heavy; heavier, I imagine, than if the scene had been painted more realistically.  As for the fruits in the basket, they look delicious.

George Orwell once wrote, "One ought to be able to hold in one's head simultaneously the two facts that Dalí is a good draughtsman and a disgusting human being."  Witness now two fleshy, irregularly shaped objects spurting tiny streams of blood.  That faint humanoid shadow is apparently my reflection, and you should ignore it, unless you want to call it my first ever collaboration with Salvador Dalí.

 Most of Joan Miró's work looks busier than this, with lots of distorted shapes and animals running around in an attempt to disturb the bourgeoisie and their superficial lifestyles.  Here, he seems to be in a more relaxed mood, or at least that beady-eyed moon does.  Paintings like this are more about shape than content, which is good because I have no idea how to explain this content.  But I love Miró's shapes all the same.

Jackson Pollock is best known for "drip paintings," complete abstractions based on seemingly random paint splotches.  Here we see that there was more to the artist than that, as this piece clearly contains some images that sort of look like things.  There's some sort of secret code scrawled in the center rectangle, which if I had to guess translates into nothing particularly important.

This sculpture by Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, is one of the most famous and influential artworks of the 20th century.  Actually, it isn't, because this sculpture is not the original Fountain.  It's just a urinal.  The original Fountain is lost forever, because it too was just a urinal, and was probably thrown into the garbage once it was finished being scandalous.

Duchamp represents a type of art called Dada, which has been called the first postmodern art movement, because its central purpose was to remind museum-goers that everything they saw hanging reverently on the wall was bullshit.  And really it is, but so's everything else.  Let's look at more art.

MOMA has a room permanently dedicated to the art of Clyfford Still, presumably because he lived and worked in the Bay Area.  Most of the paintings in this room are very large and look like this, and are principally about color rather than shape.  Don't ask me how I decided that this one was my favorite; when all you have to go on is color, taste becomes inexplicable.

This painting by Robert Rauschenberg is an example of pop art, which uses elements of popular art in a "fine art" context for the sake of driving art critics crazy.  It's almost impossible to see in this picture, but embedded under the paint in this rather large multimedia collage are clippings from newspaper articles and funny pages.  Most of the comics are really obscure, but I'm fairly sure I found a few panels of Gasoline Alley.

Sometimes, an object is art because it is beautiful.  Sometimes, it's art just because the artist says it is (see Duchamp's work for more on that).  In the case, I was led to understand that this sculpture by Jackie Winsor, a complicated and impractical collection of sticks and yarn balls, is art because it was really, really hard to make.  And yes, I imagine that it was.

Janine Antoni made two identical busts of herself: one of chocolate, the other of soap.  She then deformed them both, licking the surface of the chocolate one with her own tongue, lathering the soap one in order to smooth out its features, in a commentary on the perceived dual nature of women in contemporary culture.  I think she could have gone a step further in switching the processes, but I guess nobody wants to lick soap, even if it is for the sake of art.

This is Robert Gober's pile of newspapers from 1992.  If you lean in closely, you can read articles about Bill Clinton being confronted by anti-abortion protesters.  This is the sort of the thing that history majors like me are intrigued by, though possibly not in the way that Gober intended.

There's actually a whole series of these on a wall in the gallery hosting works by Tobi Wong, a running commentary on gender relations in close quarters.  It's one thing to talk academically about how men and women interact in terms of power dynamics and expectations: the brilliance of modern art is in showing, rather than telling.  It's also in the production of insanely awesome novelty items like socially conscious His and Hers towels, which instantly become kitsch the moment someone has the bright idea to sell them.

This is a picture of a computer monitor, which shows footage from a robotic security camera hanging above the museum lobby.  Installed by Marie Sester and part of a larger exhibit on voyeurism, the robot shines a spotlight on the lobby floor and follows randomly selected individuals as they move about the room (or, if the viewer prefers, a target can be examined manually).  It's hard to see it here, but on this particular day the camera had a rather interesting subject: a couple stood in the lobby for hours, making out incessantly as fellow patrons wondered whether they were being punked.  There's no telling what the surveillance robot thought, but I can imagine the spotlight fell on them multiple times.

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